Still, deep ideological divisions remain, and the newly confident progressives will be up against a determined GOP caucus in both chambers.
Immediately, Congress will be forced to face three self-imposed potential crises involving finances. The "sequester," or automatic spending cuts that were supposed to take place January 1 in the absence of specific cuts agreed to by Congress, has been delayed by only two months. The debt ceiling must again be raised, and while Obama insisted this week that he will not allow Congress to default on the nation's already obligated bills, Republicans are making noises about using the measure to extract spending cuts from Democrats and the White House. And by April, a continuing resolution will be on the table to keep the government running.
That leaves little time or intellectual space to talk about any kind of domestic or foreign policy. As it is, Congress adjourned without taking action on a slew of measures, including aid to Hurricane Sandy victims and re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (though House Speaker John Boehner pledged votes on Hurricane Sandy relief early in the 113th Congress). The dearth of non-fiscal ideas is partly due to the cash crunch itself, says Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer, who has written numerous books on domestic politics. "With the constant focus on the budget, the debt ceiling, and avoiding as much tax increases as possible, it does create an environment where it's hard to create new programs," Zelizer says. "What that doesn't leave room for is big initiatives in public policy."
And while the cost of entitlement programs has been escalating for decades, notes University of California–San Diego political science professor Keith Poole, the battle has morphed from a money fight to an ideological one, making it harder to control the cost of the programs. And although Obama won re-election and Democrats picked up a few seats in Congress, "the election was not a mandate for anything," he adds. Poole, who tracks congressional voting behavior, says the 112th Congress will go down as the most polarized in history. The 113th, meanwhile, is shaping up for more of the same.
Susan Milligan is a political and foreign affairs writer and contributed to a biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy.